Byline: CHRISTOPHER HUDSON
ANY Questions on Radio Four tends to be unenlightening in the run-up to a General Election.
From the red and the blue corners the punch-drunk politicians advance into the ring and throw a few tired shots in their opponent's general direction, carefully parrying any question which is not party-political in case they slip and fall. But this weekend's session, chaired by Jonathan Dimbleby from Hampstead Garden Suburb, sent a shiver down my spine.
The panellists were asked how a politician seeking election could justify refusing to sign the race relations compact prepared by the Commission for Racial Equality. With Michael Portillo in their sights, the responses of the three leftwing panellists, Arthur Scargill, the Liberal Democrat Susan Kramer and Labour's First Minister for Wales, Rhodri Morgan, had the solemn, sanctimonious relish of inquisitors condemning a fellow prelate for heresy.
Rhodri Morgan accused the Conservative Party of encouraging fascism and being halfway down that track itself. Even if the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer and his ilk were not personally racist, they were guilty of coded racism, he said; "if somebody wants to vote for them on the grounds that they attacked the Commission for Racial Equality and it gets them an extra 5,000 votes by going halfway towards the position of fascist or racist, they're very happy to have those extra 5,000 votes". Don't go down that road, he warned the Conservatives, "because you will always be trumped by the National Front".
Arthur Scargill declared that no self-respecting human being, let alone politician, could justify not signing the CRE's pledge.
Susan Kramer, joining in the chorus of pious disgust, declared that anyone who wouldn't sign up did not deserve to be the candidate of any major party.
"We have so many members of the Conservative Party sailing very close to the wind on the issue of talking in a racist manner, " she remarked.
It does not take a Conservative voter to realise that these are dangerous allegations. Rhodri Morgan's attack, taken together with Robin Cook's earlier remarks about Britishness and the Tory failure to stamp out racism, suggest that Labour really does intend to try and conceal the failure of its efforts to control illegal immigration by playing the race card against the Tories during this election campaign. However there is something deeper and more disturbing behind the reaction to Mr Portillo's stand.
Race, as an issue, is becoming a shibboleth which can no longer be debated, because for a public figure to give the impression of having independent views on the subject is to risk being cast as a pariah.
MR Portillo, himself the son of an immigrant, could not by any stretch of the imagination be called a racist. His reasons for not signing the CRE pledge should be fathomable to everyone who believes in the principle of free speech. "I went into public life to speak for myself," he said, "and I will use my own language and my own words." Like most of the other Tory MPs, from the right and the left of the party, who have declined to sign the compact, he has always, as far as I know, endorsed its principles. But to be forced to sign something under the threat of being exposed on a CRE web-site if he did not do so is the antithesis of the freedoms which all of us, including politicians, should enjoy. …